A staple of science fiction franchises like "Star Trek," "The Matrix" and "Avatar," virtual reality refers to a computer-generated environment that is generally designed to be as realistic as possible. In the real world, virtual reality is a useful technique for engineers and computer scientists, offering a tool that is more complicated --- but also more powerful --- than traditional simulation.
One of the clearest differences in virtual reality from traditional simulation is that the fidelity of the reproduction is generally higher. Virtual reality may display pictures on all sides of the user, for example, to account for peripheral vision and the ability to move around in one's environment. Very often, virtual reality displays are also stereoscopic, offering a three-dimensional perspective that is lacking in traditional simulations.
Number of Sensory Modes
Virtual reality expands the number of senses that are used in traditional simulations, which generally rely only on sight and sound. Virtual reality may incorporate "haptic" feedback, which engages the sense of touch. Virtual reality that displays a real-time image of the user's avatar also allows for "proprioception" --- a sense of where one's body parts are located, in this case within a virtual world. This technique, which allows the user to reinforce their own sense of where their limbs are, has been used in medical therapy for people suffering from partial paralysis.
The "hands-on" and immersive nature of virtual reality lends itself well to an interactivity beyond that offered by traditional simulations. A touch-enabled virtual environment, for example, allows engineers to build and manipulate virtual models with the same precision and feedback that they'd have with a real model at a fraction of the time and cost. Unlike in traditional simulations, virtual reality is designed to make it easy for the user to manipulate and interact with the environment.
In some cases, it may be easier to blend traditional simulations with elements of the real world and elements of virtual reality. The result, known as "mixed reality," combines many different elements. For example, a virtual reality display may be overlaid on the real world, a technique sometimes known as "augmented reality." Alternatively, in "augmented virtuality," elements of the real world can be traditionally simulated in a virtual environment.
- "Virtual Reality Conference"; Effect of Proprioception Training of patient with Hemiplegia by Manipulating Visual Feedback using Virtual Reality: The Preliminary Results; Sangwoo Cho, et al.; March 2009
- "Augmented Reality: A Class of Displays on the Reality-Virtuality Continuum"; Paul Milgram, et al.; 1994
- Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
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